World Baseball Classic: Do You Care?
Today in Arizona, the USA came from behind to beat Canada to advance to the next round of the World Baseball Classic. It was a pretty good game, especially considering the fact it’s still early March. It had a decent pitching match-up between the USA’s Derek Holland and Canada’s Jameson Taillon, one of the top pitching prospects in the minors. For M’s fans, Michael Saunders continued his hot streak with a two run homer off the lefty Holland. For others, there’s Joey Votto vs. Ryan Braun. Joe Mauer vs. Justin Morneau. Still, quite a few die-hard baseball fans ignored it, and a few more disparaged it.
I get it. The WBC’s got several problems, the biggest of which may be timing. Teams are loathe to allow their top players to go play ‘real’ baseball in March, so to get buy-in from teams, there are all manner of pitch count restrictions. The resulting parade of relievers looks a bit like spring training, it’s true. Then there’s the format – you can’t have seven game series the whole way, or this thing would stretch into May. Again, the format is the product of compromise at every turn, which leads to situations like today’s in which player usage was dictated by MLB team needs, not Team USA’s needs. Couple all of this with the little-leagueisms like mercy rules that the uneven teams make, well, if not necessary, then understandable, and you’ve got a tournament ripe for mockery. But here’s where you need to take your head out of the rulebook for a minute and watch a game.
Sure, Venezuela taking out Spain wasn’t much of a shock, but the game was close for longer than anyone would’ve thought. The surprising Dutch beat Cuba in qualifying ahead of South Korea. Italy’s already sewn up a spot in the next round after mercy-ruling Canada and scoring two runs off Sergio Romo to beat Mexico 6-5. Maybe it’s easier for M’s fans (or Tacoma fans) to decide to tune in when Canada’s been paced by Michael Saunders and Italy (the surprise of the tourney by far) has relied on Alex Liddi, but anyone who watched saw some exciting games. Some may argue that the presence of an Alex Maestri or a Diegomar Markwell essentially disqualifies a game from being truly thrilling, but I’d disagree. Again, maybe it’s the fact that I was an M’s fan in the 80s and in the relieverless late-90s that makes it easier for me to adjust, but if you didn’t give an involuntary fist-pump when Adam Jones put the US up in the bottom of the 8th today, you’re a more rootless cosmopolitan than I am.
There’s been a lot of discussion the past few days about the discussion of the WBC from baseball fans/baseball sites. Yes, that’s an incredibly meta, twitter-soaked sentence, but it’s something that I’ve been thinking about a lot this weekend. I can’t pay attention to everyone in the baseball world, but in my timeline, there’s been a lot of WBC love. Or at least a lot of WBC one-month-stands. I haven’t heard the kind of out and out mockery that I used to when Gary Majewski was called in for crucial late-game situations seven years ago. I’ve no doubt that those who’ve picked up on and commented on a lack of enthusiasm from the baseball establishment are right, and the scheduling is a problem. The other massive problem is that the baseball establishment’s never really had an international tournament to care about. Basketball had the Cold War-stoked Olympics, and then the ‘Dream Team’ Olympics to build off of. The former offered a more-than-competitive rival and the latter allowed the narrative to indulge in Hollywood-esque star watching and pop psychology, two things that seem to dominate mainstream NBA coverage now (and I realize I say this as an unsophisticated consumer of NBA news). Hockey’s always been multipolar from the US standpoint. There were similar Cold War rivalries without the burden of expectations, and even without the Russians, the Canadians always loomed as affable favorites. More than that, those sports lend themselves to tournaments in a way baseball simply doesn’t. You can modify the nature of the tournament, but many baseball fans don’t *like* ‘tournaments’ when they’ve got 162-game seasons. They’re into revealed truth, not Cinderella stories.
I’m pretty clearly in the ‘pro’ camp. I’ll be following the next round, and can’t wait to see the Dutch and the Italians take on the world powers. I’m looking forward to the US facing Japan or Cuba. I think it’s pretty cool that Michael Saunders will head back to M’s camp with the kind of experience he’s had. More than most, I follow and care about the M’s Cactus League. I *wrote* about a match-up of Andrew Carraway and whoever the hell Dylan Axelrod is today. I understand but can’t agree with anyone who says they’d rather watch Axelrod pitch to Julio Morban than John Axford pitch to Adam Jones. But what do you think? Did you watch this weekend? Will you watch the next round? What changes would you make? If you hate it, why? Have you read anything about the WBC that struck you as particularly good or particularly stupid? Do you agree with those who say that the bulk of the discourse surrounding the WBC has been dismissive, or has it been TOO accommodating?